Care Notes: Mental Illness in Academia

Most people who know me know I had my first episode of psychosis when I was in graduate school. But long before then, I had a horrifying experience: I overheard a search committee at a university question a candidate’s “long term stability” because they had a previous breakdown.

It’s been 10 years since then, but not a lot has changed in terms of how we see mental illness. I’m writing this post for people in philosophy. After 10 years, there’s some things I have picked up. I encourage you to contribute to this thread in comments.

Whether someone goes inpatient voluntarily or involuntarily, it’s a jarring experience. Look, it’s a hospital. I always thought that, as with any hospital stay, cards, balloons, and well-wishes should be the norm. We want people who go inpatient to be well. Our practices ought to show this. If you would do it for any other hospital stay, do it for mental illness.

I have been inpatient over 8 times over the years, so I have some experience here: If you are a friend or family member (or other close associate of the patient), go to visiting hours and bring comforting items, if they are allowed. Soft blankets, slippers, and other cozy things make a hospital stay better. Trust me.

Don’t see the person as an illness. That’s just old crap. Just as medical professionals are instructed to see someone as having diabetes rather than “a diabetic,” you should use phrasiology and perform actions that show you understand this is a person with some condition or illness.

Along with this, you should take care to know when someone is a threat. Granted, this is hard to do and may take more professional instruction than we normally have these days, but far too many times, I’ve seen people become outcasts and have myself been ostracized from certain circles due to my psychological disability. It’s important to know that belonging to a community, having friends, intimate partners, a professional life and access to academics are all variables to a patient’s healthy success. If you withdraw university support, friendship, mentorship, etc., I understand you probably have been shaken and thus tend to act conservatively to keep this supposed threat away from you. But they may not be a threat at all. If they are just acting wonky and abnormally, it’s probably their illness, not them. Ask yourself: Do I want this person to be well? Do I care about them? When they are well, do they contribute to the body of knowledge? These and other questions will help you assess whether to sever ties.

You should also know the law. In the example I began this post with, it’s pretty clear that the people involved on the search committee were breaking the law. In your personal life, you can exclude anyone you want, and I’ve told people this. They are free to sever ties with me. It may be discriminatory on a personal level, but there’s no law saying you cannot be a personal bigot.

However, there are laws against institutional bigotry and discrimination. If you have a psychological disability, you are protected by these laws. But even if you do not have such a disability, you should know enough not to break the law.

For me, it has taken 10 years to really feel well. But that’s not going to be the case for everyone. The situation does not have to be dire, especially if we start to think about mental illness in a just way and act in conjunction with this.

I have lost friends, mentors and lovers due to my illness. I don’t even work in academic philosophy anymore. It’s my hope that by writing this, people coming after me–and some of those before me–have better opportunities and a more equitable world to face with a mental illness.

Share your thoughts in comments.

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